06/07/2011 01:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 07, 2011

Improving Education Through Data Quality

As millions of high school and college students graduate across the country this month and last, it's important to stop and ask if enough is being done in education to help revive the economy and put more Americans to work.

Everyone understands that the key to a brighter future for all Americans is more and better jobs. It's the great pathway to prosperity and we'll only get there by way of more and better education -- at all levels.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to improve education -- or anything else -- without good data. Right now, that information frequently isn't available. In fact, the data gaps are huge. Consider the startling facts:

  • Only 25 states know the critical indicators (such as course enrollment or test scores) that predict whether their high school students are prepared to enter college or the workplace.
  • Only two states can tell which teacher preparation programs produce the strongest teachers based on performance.
  • And at a time of high unemployment and declining wages for many Americans, only 12 states have the ability to provide follow a student from high school and post-secondary into workforce to begin to look at earnings in their jobs and careers.

The fact is that educators, policymakers, parents and students don't have the facts. They lack data needed to understand links between educational experiences and outcomes. Trying to ascertain connections between credentials and employability is a high-stakes game of blind man's bluff.

We must do better and better data holds the promise to improve the system in three important ways. Reliable information creates greater transparency and accountability, enabling predictive analysis and continuous improvement. Second, data provides benchmarks for allocating dwindling education resources. Third, a data-rich environment empowers individuals to make informed decisions about education options.

From Main Street to Wall Street, information creates the transparency required in all functioning markets, including educational futures. Good data and the means to properly analyze and access it will increase our return on investment in K-12 and post-secondary education. Investing without the benefit of reliable data is gambling.

Data can be a game changer. And when it comes to education, we must change the game. There's no other way to restart our sputtering economy and prepare our citizens for the jobs of the 21st Century.

Health care provides a good analogy. The system is undergoing a massive transition from paper to electronic medical records, in part because research showed that lack of data contributed to as many as 200,000 unnecessary deaths every year. By contrast, the Framingham Heart Study has used longitudinal data to revolutionize our understanding of the causal links connecting diet and exercise to heart disease.

Lacking data, opinion prevails. School districts "pay about $8 billion each year to teachers [with] master's degrees, even though there is little evidence [that they] improve student achievement more than other teachers," noted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a recent speech.

The lack of evidence is all around us. The Washington Post cited a recent report from the Council of the Great City Schools that says "black male students trail their white counterparts in school by alarming margins and for reasons that often are not well understood."

Educators needn't continue to grope for answers. The Dallas Morning News has reported on lawmakers in Texas who are using data to grapple with record budget shortfalls by identifying schools whose students perform better than expected, even where funding is severely limited. Armed with data, educators in Texas have "a chance to figure out which districts might be doing a better job in an area and find out how they do it," the paper reported.

The dearth of data isn't just a problem for educators and policymakers. Students and their parents also lack comparative data about education options and outcomes. A car buyer can go to the Web and easily compare the features, options and performance ratings of various vehicles. But finding solid data on the employment prospects of someone who spends more than $200,000 to earn a bachelor's degree? Good luck.

The good news is that we have made strides toward collecting the right information, linking it across time and providing key feedback as students move from K-12 to higher education and into the workforce. Most states have at least begun to set up information systems that can aggregate and display education data (while protecting the privacy of individuals) and connect the dots that inform policy and decision-making.

Some states have made more progress. Colorado is using data and a common measure to gauge students' progress over time and to inform a state-wide education reform plan. In Louisiana, the state's Dropout Early Warning Data System (DEWS) identifies at-risk students and provides interventions for re-engaging them. Moreover, the system assesses the effectiveness of those interventions.

Yet we are only halfway there -- and that's a dangerous place to be in an environment where every dollar counts. We must finish the job.

High-quality, actionable education data is in everyone's interest, and we all need to work together to assure its availability and use. In particular, we urge governors and legislators to demand that we get the right data to the right people at the right time to address tough questions about educational access, learning, success, and employability. We can't afford not to.